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Monday, October 16, 2006

Small acts of kindness

[Setting:  Standing on line in a bakery on Friday afternoon, casually eavesdropping on two women having a conversation behind me]

Woman 1: I'm running really late today... I wonder if they've already locked the cash registers.

Woman 2: 'Locked the cash registers?'  What does that mean... they won't take our money?

W1: Yeah... basically.  30 - 45 minutes before they officially close, the owner goes around to each cash register and locks the drawers... and then goes home.  The cashiers have instructions to tell anyone coming after the drawers are locked that they have no way to accept money so whatever the customers have picked out is free.

W2:  I don't get it... why would the owner do that?

W1:  Don't you see... it's just like in Machane Yehuda [the open air produce market in Jerusalem] where a lot of the vendors who sell perishables slash their prices an hour before closing for shabbat.  That way the poor people can 'buy' the things they need for shabbat with dignity... and the vendors basically give things that can't be stored over shabbat to a worthy cause.  And because some of the people doing last minute shopping really are simply running late, there is no shame for the poor because nobody knows who is who.

W2:  Wait, so you're telling me it's an open secret that poor people come here during the last hour before closing and they get their baked goods for free?

W1:  Exactly, only everyone's dignity is protected by the fact that some shoppers are actually running late... and by the owner's little charade of the locked cash registers.  This way everyone wins; The owner of the bakery performs a 'hesed' [roughly translates as an act of kindness]... the cashiers get to take part in the act... and the recipients can just as easily be genuinely running late as poor... so there is no embarrassment to anyone at being on the receiving end of the act.

W2:  [after a brief pause] Y'know... sometimes I love this country!

[Author's note:  Me too!]

While driving home from the bakery my mind replayed the conversation I had just heard... and then wandered to a memory of a wonderful fish restaurant in Brooklyn that Zahava and I used to frequent.  This kitschy little kosher seafood place had an incredibly wide selection of really fresh fish on the menu at all times, and the owner would often come to the table to recommend new selections or advise diners on interesting new ways to have their old favorites prepared.

After one of our dinners there I was raving about the place to a friend who also knew the place, and I wondered aloud how this little restaurant could afford to have so many different kinds of fresh fish on the menu.  Surely the law of averages suggested that they must end up throwing out a lot of fish since not every portion of every type of fish would be ordered by the customers every day. 

My friend's reply was an eye-opener. 

He explained that every night at 'closing time', many of the poor, and/or homeless people from the neighborhood knew to come to the restaurant.  The manager personally seated them at tables set with clean linen tablecloths and napkins, and had his chef prepare for them whatever fish would not be perfectly fresh the following evening.  Rather than let the fish go 'off' and be thrown away, he opted to have his chef work an extra hour preparing it for people in need of a good meal.

Fiscally speaking, TurboTax is not going to find any extra deductions for this service and a cost accountant wouldn't really care about where the 'wasted' food went at the end of the day... because gone is gone, and an old loaf of challah is the same as day old fish to someone looking only at a ledger.

I like to think that these business owners are keeping two sets of books (and not in the criminal sense); one that tells them how they are doing right now... and one that will only be checked when they are audited at the end of their days.

I'm sure there must be thousands... maybe even tens of thousands... of stories like these floating around out there.  Such 'small' acts of kindness must occur every day under our very noses, yet unless we overhear someone talking about them in a bakery line... or have a friend fill us in about what happens to leftover fish at our favorite restaurant... we may never hear about them. 

And that's a shame.

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Posted by David Bogner on October 16, 2006 | Permalink

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From Treppenwitz via Israelity: [Setting: Standing on line in a bakery on Friday afternoon, casually eavesdropping on two women having a conversation behind me] Woman 1: Im running really late today I wonder if theyve already loc... [Read More]

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Thanks, David. What a pleasant way to start the painful extraction from the holiness of the sukkah (our little piece of Eretz Yisrael, out here in Galut). It is good to be reminded that there are silent silver threads of holiness woven throughout the entire mundane tapestry of human activity.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Oct 16, 2006 2:49:17 PM

Nice story.

Posted by: val | Oct 16, 2006 3:39:05 PM

beautiful story. really the way the world should work.

Posted by: SF Lisa | Oct 16, 2006 3:53:15 PM

Ah, but now we've heard about these two. Tzedakah in action as a way of living.

Beautiful little stories that remind me that it's good to be human sometimes.

Posted by: Elisson | Oct 16, 2006 5:19:54 PM

Very beautiful. I think that most Jewish communities have organizations to help people in need, and as far as I know, most Jewish-owned restaurants help out in the types of ways you describe.

Posted by: Essie | Oct 16, 2006 6:00:24 PM

thats a nice little country you have there.

Posted by: weese | Oct 16, 2006 6:06:36 PM

Such 'small' acts of kindness must occur every day under our very noses, yet unless we overhear someone talking about them in a bakery line... or have a friend fill us in about what happens to leftover fish at our favorite restaurant... we may never hear about them.

Some people may not want you to hear about them. They may not want the notoriety but still want to be able to help people.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 16, 2006 6:14:51 PM

i've been needy and needed...needed is better...but needy always reminds me...great post...stay safe

Posted by: marallyn | Oct 16, 2006 6:30:28 PM

Now that is a lovely thought. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: mercurial scribe | Oct 16, 2006 6:40:34 PM

Aha! Now you have proven for all time why Hashem makes people who do everything at the last minute (which drives those of us who are more punctual to distraction). Gam zu l'tova....

Posted by: westbankmama | Oct 16, 2006 7:16:28 PM

After almost 6 hours in Misrad HaRishui, this post is tonic indeed.

Posted by: PP | Oct 16, 2006 7:36:50 PM

The "Burger and Shake" restaurant in downtown Fort Worth was my favorite lunch spot. (My wife would have fainted if she knew I dined at such a dingy-looking place - though it was actually quite clean, just very run down.)

During my short take-out stops, I'd often observe the owner (and cook) signalling the head waitress (a.k.a., his wife) with a nod as he passed her a plate that didn't have an order slip. She'd then take the unordered plate and slide it in front of one the street people who'd come inside to escape the heat (or cold). With a smile she'd ask, "Is there anything else I can get you?" (using the same intonation as she used for their revenue-generating patrons). If happened to be inquiring of Tourette's-ridden Clifford, he'd mutter to himself, "Muther-fucker!" And she'd cheerfully reply, "Enjoy."

Alas, about ten years ago the husband died of a heart attack, and the wife tried valiantly to carry on. She'd have succeeded too, if the owner of the building hadn't decided Fort Worth desperately needed another parking lot.

(By the way, my King James Bible translates "hesed" as "lovingkindness". Even that translation I think falls short. But then, don't we all?)

Posted by: Bob | Oct 16, 2006 8:50:50 PM

A beautiful story. It's good to share knowledge of acts of chesed like these. The charedi/Chassidic community of London has a slew of gemachs-- small scale organizations to bring together those who have to give and those who need... everything from medical equipment to bridal dresses, to mending and sewing help, to furniture and white goods to befriending support for those making weddings who don't know the ropes. They all have wonderful sensitive systems for shielding the dignity of those who need the services, and all those I've come across are run by the most kind and modest individuals. Giving to one of these gemachs is a good way of getting to feel part of it. It's a wonderful feeling.

Posted by: Judy | Oct 16, 2006 9:15:13 PM

What a nice story. What makes it double nice, is that the owner apparently has no second thoughts about all the people who'd try to take advantage of his act of kindness... which is why he's a much better person than I am, since that thought would pop into my head sooner or later. But really, it's very inspiring to hear such stories... such an anti-dote to the cynicism which just naturally tends to gather up with time.

Posted by: Irina | Oct 16, 2006 9:20:40 PM

Beauty, Dave, and linked.

Yehuda

Posted by: Yehuda Berlinger | Oct 16, 2006 10:59:41 PM

Both of those are heart-warming stories. Thanks for posting.

Posted by: The Back of the Hill | Oct 16, 2006 11:57:27 PM

This was a particularly nice post.

Posted by: Seattle | Oct 17, 2006 7:28:19 AM

The markup prices for these items are probably absorbing 'hesed', it only works one way, never vice versa. :-)

Posted by: pk | Oct 17, 2006 8:14:25 AM

Or maybe God is blessing the businesses/owners in a special way because they're honoring Him. What goes around comes around, y'know.

Posted by: Kiwi the Geek | Oct 17, 2006 11:13:46 AM

What a wonderful conversation to overhear.

Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: jaime | Oct 17, 2006 3:48:55 PM

rutimizrachi... My pleasure. I also have trouble getting on with the year after the holidays.

Val... Thanks.

SF Lisa... I agree. But even though it doesn't, discovering this sort of thing going on helps even out a lot of the bad stuff out there.

Elisson... Yeah, sometimes I get the feeling that not everyone out there is a complete putz. :-)

Essie... If only I believed that the word 'most' belonged in either of your sentences.

Weese... No argument from me. :-)

Jack... that goes without saying, but so few people know of this sort of thing that they can't possibly learn by example how to perform such acts. That's a shame.

Marallyn... We all need reminding what it is to be needy... ESPECIALLY if we've never been there.

mercurial scribe... You're very welcome. I hope everyone is over the flu in your house.

westbankmama... Don't even get me started about punctuality. We can discuss that one over coffee some time.

pp... Wow, now that's a compliment. Thanks.

Bob... A city can never have too many parking lots. :-) Seriously, the number of mom & pop places that actually looked at people as, well, people is dwindling every day in the face of franchise fast food places, mega stores and yes... parking lots.

Judy... One of the reasons that that community has such a well-developed system of 'gamachs' is because of the widespread acceptance of not working for a living. While I have no problem with genuinely gifted students making a life of Torah study (and being supported by the community), I have a big problem with entire communities based on this lifestyle (and the charity it necessitates). There are so many truly needy people in the world that it seems wrong to divert so many resources to people who have the ability to support themselves.

Irina... The system is obviously open to abuse... but the people who would come late simply to get cheap or free stuff would not have as wide a selection of goods.

Yehuda... Thanks. always appreciated.

The Back of the Hill... If I hadn't been in just the right place I never would have heard either. I can't even imagine how many other similar tales are out there waiting to be told... and overheard.

Seattle... and a particularly nice comment as well. :-)

pk... That's pretty cynical, don't you think? (unless I've misunderstood you)

Kiwi the Geek... Even if this isn't the case (and I think it is, to some extent), I'm sure many of the business owners are operating under the assumption that this is how the world works.

Jaime... Thanks. May we all be worthy to overhear such conversations.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 17, 2006 4:51:20 PM

Hi Treppenwitz,

What a grand slam of a post!

I also linked to you from my blog.

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.

Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak | Oct 17, 2006 6:06:51 PM

Wow. That's amazing...

I think there are tons of stories like this out there, but I wish there would be more. Sadly, there are also the people who hear about stores such as the first one and will always come late, knowing that they might get their stuff for free.

Posted by: Ezzie | Oct 17, 2006 8:53:18 PM

great post. In a similiar vein here's a story from aish.com, maybe make this stop ur next family restaurant outing, or the next place for a blogger bash
http://www.aish.com/jewishissues/israeldiary/Dining_with_Dignity.asp

Posted by: Brad | Oct 18, 2006 3:04:19 AM

Great post.

Am I the only one that it made think of the story of Ruth, where the harvesters were told to leave extra for the gleaners?

Posted by: Iris | Oct 18, 2006 1:35:03 PM

Well, Trep': here's ANOTHER fine piece you've got me referring to!

Mmm-Mm! (twiddles tie)

Posted by: Wrymouth | Oct 19, 2006 9:28:50 AM

Maksim-Smelchak... A stand-up double, at best... but I appreciate the compliment. :-)

Ezzie... Of course, but the owner has already decided that he has sold all he has to by a certain hour and is 'me'ayesh' what comes after that.

Brad... Good idea, I'll keep it in mind. Thanks for the link.

Iris... the difference is that leaving the corners of ones fields for the poor is clearly codified in Jewish law. The kind of small kindnesses I've described are more discretionary.

Wrymouth... Ahhh, a Laurel & Hardy fan. Nice to know there are still a few of us around. Thanks for the mention.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 19, 2006 10:06:13 AM

Very nice. It's a blessing to know that there are folks out there not merely thinking of the bottom line.

Thanks for the wonderful post!

Posted by: benning | Oct 20, 2006 4:18:27 AM

It's good to be reminded every now and again that the world can be a decent place...I expect there are many more than 36 hidden tzaddikim...or maybe they all rotate...

Posted by: mcaryeh | Nov 5, 2006 7:11:59 AM

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